Interview with Rachel Pollack by Ron Hogan

Rachel Pollack is the author of several books about the Tarot, including Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom, which most tarot enthusiasts hold up as one of the top books about the cards and their meanings. In her most recent book, The Forest of Souls, she breaks away from the genre's usual format--the list of standard interpretations for each of the cards in the deck--and dives into a philosophical meditation on the cards, and how they can be used for "divination" in the way that Wiccan High Priestess Phyllis Currott uses the term in Witch Crafting: a conversation with the divine. Pollack's concept of "wisdom questions," questions that go beyond fortunetelling into the basic concerns of metaphysics and theology, offers a new direction for tarot studies in the 21st century, one which many of her fans in online discussion groups have taken up eagerly. -- Ron Hogan

Ron: Let's delve a little bit into your concept of tarot reading as gambling.

Rachel: It's based on an Egyptian myth, in which the goddess Nut is pregnant with five new gods: Seth, Osiris, Isis, Nepthys, and Horus. But she's been forbidden by her husband, Ra, the sun god, to give birth on any day of any month of the year, because she got pregnant through an affair. Nut wants to give birth, so she goes to Thoth for help. And what's interesting is that instead of using magic or compelling force, or even theft of power from Ra, Thoth gambles with the moon, and wins 1/72 of each day, producing five new days out of a year that had previously been 360 days, twelve months of thirty days each. The 360-day year is an allegory for a fixed cycle--nothing can change, everything is predictable. Often, in comments on mythology, this cyclic view is held up as an ideal, but the problem with a cyclic view is that there's no change. Thoth's gamble makes the circle opens up, and something new becomes possible.

So tarot for me isn't necessarily about what's going to happen, or even sometimes what the issues are, but what's possible, what can be opened up. And about what we risk when we gamble on a reading. Any tarot reading that's done with any honesty is an act of risk, an act of courage.

Ron: Because the querent has to expose himself or herself to what the cards have to say. People often go for a reading because they want to be comforted, to be told what they want to hear, but sometimes the cards may provoke uncomfortable truths, things people know on some level but are unwilling to express consciously.

Rachel: If you see those messages as absolute and predictive, it's definitely more frightening and dangerous, because you can box yourself in to that message...

Ron: This way, the cards become a starting point for a conversation rather than a fixed prediction.

Rachel: One of the things I do in Forest of Souls is to have those kinds of conversations with the divine, to use the tarot to ask the types of questions you'd ask God or Goddess if they were sitting in the room. The answers are always fascinating. I teach a monthly class in New York, for which I'm always devising new spreads, and I noticed recently that for a long time, not a single spread has had a predictive question. It's not what I think about when I think about the cards anymore.

Ron: You write about the developing relationship with the cards as an act of learning to love the images.

Rachel: That's my basic approach. I came up with that phrase in an earlier book on tarot, which was originally called The Open Labyrinth. Loving the images to me means constantly going back to them, seeing them as they are. Someone said once that when you look at a tree, you shouldn't just see the word "tree," but really see the tree in front of you. It's the same with a tarot card: don't just see the list of formulaic answers for what that card is supposed to mean. If you see that instead of the card, you've lost the image.

Ron: So in a way, you come to the cards fresh every time--but you also talk about how the cards accrue meaning as they appear over and over. The Ace of Birds, from your Shining Tribe deck, for example, shows up in many of the book's readings.

Rachel: In the very first Wisdom reading I asked the cards "What is the soul?" The answer was the Ace of Birds. So now when it appears, it often speaks to issues concerning the soul.

The Shining Tribe deck is not as different as it looks on the surface, but it strikes me sometimes that people don't want to learn about the images; they'd rather deal with what they've learned about the cards from previous decks. I've seen in classes how people have trouble shifting when we look at a card from the Shining Tribe. But once we get into it, past the initial resistance to a new card where they can't just plug in the Rider-Waite-Smith's great.

Ron: Was part of your desire to create the deck due to your interest in wisdom questions?

Rachel: With the Shining Tribe deck, I was literally inspired by images I'd seen or read about--a lot of the art is based upon those ancient, prehistoric images. The interest in wisdom questions didn't really start until after I'd done the deck. It's as if there was an implicit invitation in the deck for me to pursue those questions. It may because the cards are based on ancient images, ancient ways of understanding existence...the roots of our spiritual understanding of the world. I've had a number of people tell me they love the deck, but don't use it for readings. They'll use it specifically to look at their path as spiritual beings. It does seem to invite that approach, because its images are on such a deep level. People see the deck as a way to connect to their own place on that journey.

Ron: You've also worked very extensively with the Haindl and Vertigo tarot decks, as preparation for writing the guidebooks. How did your involvement with the Haindl deck come about?

Rachel: I was contacted by my German publisher, who told me they were publishing a new deck and wanted to know if I'd write the book for it. I originally thought they meant what's known among tarot fans as the lwb, the "little white booklet," the little pamphlet that comes with the deck and explains the basic meanings. So I said, sure, sounds good. And then Hermann and Erika Haindl showed up at my apartment in Amsterdam with these huge paintings, and I could see right away that I was in for a much bigger project. It turned out to be a 500-page book!

I just had a wonderful, immediate connection with the Haindls. But there were a few images I initially had some trouble with. His first image for the Strength card was very phallic, and I wasn't even sure I could work with the deck based on this card. It looked like a huge penis with a snake wrapped around it. So I decided to consult the Motherpeace deck--a very feminist deck from the 1970s; some people would almost call it a man-hating feminist deck... I decided that if the cards said it was alright, I would work with the Haindls. And the cards that came up were all about collaboration and working in harmony, so I decided to do it, but the next day, when Hermann came over, I told him about my troubles with Strength. At first he got defensive, and said, "I am a man; for me, this is strength!" I pointed out that the card is traditionally about a very female kind of strength, and later he agreed to change it to the woman wrestling with the snake. He realized, he said, that the German word for strength, starkte, is grammatically feminine.

Ron: How about the Vertigo deck?

Rachel: Neil Gaiman and I had talked about a comic book tarot when we first knew each other, but we were thinking about more mainstream comics: Superman as Strength, Batman as the Hermit, things like that. Later, at DC, Sharon Kattuah had talked to Neil about a Vertigo tarot, and he thought it was a great idea, so he talked to Karen Berger about it, and eventually the four of us got together to decide which characters would go with which major arcana card. And for the art, I'd actually talked with the artist on the deck, Dave McKean, about doing a deck some time before, but we had different ideas at that time of what we wanted to do, so we dropped the project. This time around, Dave did his own stuff, though I did send him some guidelines. He's just an amazing artist. His stuff is in a class by itself, truly visionary.

Ron: What have you seen in new decks that you like?

Rachel: There's a German deck by Marguerite Petersen that hasn't been printed in this country yet. It's truly amazing. To my mind, it sets a new standard for art in tarot. It's hard to read with sometimes, because the images can be very abstract, but they're so beautiful I end up taking my glasses off so I can hold the cards right up to my eyes and catch all the details in some of the images. I'm very impressed with that deck, so much so that I've approached the publishers to see if they'd be interested in a fuller book than what comes with it so far.

Going back a few years, I like the Greenwood deck very much. It's a very shamanic tarot by Francesca Potter. World Spirit and Nigel Jackson are both very fun. I like the Victoria Regina a lot, though I haven't tried reading with it yet.

Ron: What are your plans for the future?

Rachel: I'm writing a book about the Tree of Life right now, inspired by a painting that Hermann's done, and then I have some fiction projects that I'm working on. Right now, I'm not sure what I'm going to next with tarot... I do have a deck that I want to do, and I'm looking for an artist to collaborate with. I was actually planning to work with Brian Williams on it, before he got sick, so his recent death is a personal and creative loss to me, though that's only part of the tremendous loss that the tarot community has experienced. And I haven't really looked for a new artist seriously since he died, but once I'm done with the Tree of Life book, I'll probably get back to that.

Ron Hogan has no particular connection to Tarot, other than owning a couple of decks, but he has interviewed hundreds of authors for his website, where this interview first appeared.

Interview 2002 Ron Hogan
Photograph 2002 Lori Cluelow
Page 2002 Diane Wilkes